NASA Certifies New Launch Control System for Artemis I Mission

NASA Orion Spacecraft Trans lunar Injection Burn

Illustration of Orion spacecraft performing a trans-lunar injection burn. Credit: NASA

When NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft lift off from the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the Artemis I mission, the amount of data generated by the rocket, spacecraft, and ground support equipment will be about 100 megabytes per second. The volume and speed of this information demands an equally complex and robust computer system to process and deliver that data to the launch team and corresponding mission systems in real time.

That computer software and hardware – called the spacecraft command and control system (SCCS) – is now certified for use on Artemis I. Shawn Quinn, director of NASA Engineering at Kennedy, and the KSC Engineering Design Certification Review Board signed off on the system at the conclusion of a recent design certification review for SCCS.

Artemis I Launch Team Countdown Simulation Inside Launch Control Center Firing Room 1

Members of the Artemis I launch team participate in a countdown simulation inside the Launch Control Center’s Firing Room 1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on February 3, 2020. A team of nearly 100 engineers from Orion, Space Launch System and Exploration Ground Systems came together to work through a series of simulated challenges, as well as a final countdown procedure. Artemis I will be the first integrated tet flight of the Orion spacecraft and SLS rocket – the system that will ultimately land the first woman and the next man on the Moon. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The system is the electronic hub where information traveling to and from the SLS core stage, the rocket’s Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), Orion, ground systems, and the operators inside the firing room intersect. During loading and launch, the software will process up to 575,000 changes per second.

“We’re flying three vehicles in parallel – Orion spacecraft, ICPS, and SLS core stage – and SCCS needs to be able to communicate with all three simultaneously,” said Mike Van Houten, the Launch Control System project manager in the Command, Control and Communications organization within EGS. “While we’re ‘talking’ with the spacecraft and vehicles, we’re also receiving data from Kennedy’s ground systems – programmable logic controllers, subsystems in the field, and equipment on the mobile launcher.”

Making sense of that much data is as complex as efficiently managing the real time movements of hundreds of thousands of people within a large metropolitan area, Van Houten said.

NASA Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson

NASA Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson follows operations at her console in Firing Room 1 at the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Control Center during a countdown simulation for Artemis I. It was the agency’s first simulation of a portion of the countdown for the first launch of a Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft that will eventually take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit to destinations such as the Moon and Mars. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

“Each bit of telemetry data coming from a different interface is like a person arriving into the city via a plane, train, automobile, bus, or ferry,” he explained. “Just like each person, each bit of data needs to arrive at a unique destination, whether that’s a display, application, or recording. And all the movements have to be synchronized so data arrives exactly where it should be in the quickest timeframe possible.”

All this information is integrated into the displays shown on consoles throughout Firing Room 1 and Firing Room 2 inside Kennedy’s Launch Control Center, enabling Operators to make informed decisions on how to continue the activity in progress.

Launch Control Center Firing Room 1

Members of the Artemis I launch team participate in a countdown simulation inside the Launch Control Center’s Firing Room 1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on February 3, 2020. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Comprising a mix of custom-built software and off-the-shelf products, the SCCS was developed specifically to manage processing and launch operations for Artemis missions. As Artemis began to take shape, NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) team and its lead contractor, Jacobs, advanced the effort to develop a robust, updated system.

The certification marks the end of the system’s development and signals the start of the “sustaining” phase of the project for Artemis I. Moving forward, countdown and launch simulations performed by the EGS-Jacobs team will help train the launch team and fine-tune the SCCS.

During these simulations, Operators step through prelaunch checklists to practice the procedures for liftoff and ascent. Some simulations focus on specific operations while others walk the team through critical portions of the countdown. Each rehearsal allows the team to gather useful data to refine the system.

“The SCCS system engineering and performance teams evaluate the data after each simulation to ensure the system is performing per specifications and no unexpected errors were triggered,” Van Houten said. “It gives the SCCS team an indication of where we need to tackle problems before the next sim or operational event.”

Lessons learned from launching the uncrewed Artemis I will help SCCS developers identify process, performance, and technical changes needed for future missions. The developers will focus on capturing new requirements and the expectations of stakeholders such as the Artemis I launch director, firing room operators, the ground support equipment team, the ground to flight application software team, the model and simulation team, and the launch training team. This information will help the SCCS developers make system upgrades to support the crewed Artemis II flight test and future missions.

Under the Artemis program, NASA is leading the way in human exploration of deep space with increasingly complex missions to explore the Moon and prepare for future missions to send astronauts to Mars.

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